Giles Fraser is right about interfaith dialogue but his article shows up liberal inconsistency

In a recent Unherd article, Giles Fraser argues that we need more religious conflict. He says:

These days, interfaith dialogue — on the ground at least — rarely allows itself to visit areas of controversy. In primary school, religious studies classes are, more often than not, existentially anaemic encounters. Different faith traditions are presented alongside each other without the tension created by wondering which one may be true. Lesson plans emphasise things like food traditions among religions, where you liking Halal lamb curry and me liking Jollof rice (definitely a religious tradition in my parish) describes differences without the need to introduce conflict over who is right. After all, what is more subjective than our taste buds. It’s all perfectly understandable. Who wants to import the tensions of the world into a classroom?

But that’s the dilemma: either interfaith discussion directly addresses the issues that divide people of faith, including the more conservative ones (who globally speaking, are in the majority) and accepts that quite a lot of friction and heat will be created — offence, shouting, walk outs — or it avoids the real tensions between people of faith, in which case it is deathly dull and, therefore, useless.

Most people don’t want to give up their precious evenings for shouting matches in an atmosphere of extreme tensionWho would? Most religious conservatives already think they’re right anyway. They don’t want to open up an audience to potentially liberalising speakers either. So interfaith groups tend to be dominated by those who don’t really need them: well-meaning people; keen to stress the common denominators amongst people of faith.

He goes on:

I wonder if interfaith dialogue can be truly revived. Disagreement, even full-blown dispute, will have to be part of any resurrection of this great tradition. Breaking bread and making friends is one — important — aspect of such talks. But we must beware of such groups avoiding the difficult points of disagreement between us and indeed limiting themselves to liberal believers. This means that interfaith groups must accept that they will always be poised in an uncomfortable place between solidarity and disagreement, the greater the former always allowing for more of the latter.

He notes:

This fragile dynamic between trust and challenge is easily damaged. My own feeling is that we are still not there in our conversations between Christianity and Islam, or between Judaism and Islam for that matter. There continue to be many perils in such encounters. Danger one is subjectivism: your truth is just as good as my truth. No one really thinks that anyway, it’s just a convenient way of not coming to blows. Danger two is coming to blows, or the verbal equivalent with encounters collapsing into acrimony and insult.

I want to suggest that even between Christians and Muslims are possible to do well. That is, even when hosted by the apparently over-confident, we’re definitely right and think everyone else is wrong, Conservative Evangelical kind that we represent and Giles seems to hold in real contempt. Because that isn’t uniquely a Conservative Evangelical position, is it?

Who, whether Christian or Muslim, Conservative or Liberal, secular or religious, believes they are wrong? Everybody who thinks things thinks what they do because they believe it is true. It is in the very nature of thinking or believing anything! We believe what we believe because we believe it is true. Even the kindly gentle liberals that Giles clearly prefers think and believe things, and think they are right about them (hence Giles’ slightly contemptuous comments towards Conservatives – he thinks they are wrong!) The difference, ultimately, is not that they are any less sure of what they believe, it is merely that – except towards Conservative Evangelicals whom they seem to despise above all – they aren’t always willing to be honest and own up to their own thoughts on matters.

Nevertheless, we have regular Muslim-Christian dialogues in our church and at a local Muslim community centre. We all go into the discussions understanding that we clearly disagree, we both think we are right and the other wrong, we both want to persuade the other of our position, but we all want to remain friends. We have found that provides an excellent basis for disagreeing, even robustly at times, whilst managing to maintain friendship.

So, we do not dodge difficult topics. We have discussed our different views of salvation. We have talked about the relative merits of our respective books. We have debated whether Jesus or Mohammad is the final prophet. We have presentations from an imam and a pastor on these issues. We then have question and answer time for people to ask whatever questions they want. But when the Q&A is done, even when it gets a little more heated sometimes than most in the room would like, we can draw a line under the discussion. We eat together afterwards and ensure that the final word is not on debate, but on being friends despite our differences.

I remember one meeting at which I said to my imam friend, ‘you would, presumably, love it if we all converted to Islam?’ He assured me that was true. I said, ‘and we would love it if you all converted to Christianity too.’ We all know why we are there. We all also recognise that it is a sign of respect and love for someone to try to convince you of what they believe is true. If Islam really is right, then it is a little hateful for them not to tell me about it in the hope that I might come round to the truth and enjoy the benefits of worshipping God rightly. By the same token, if they are wrong and the Bible is true – if we actually care for them as friends – we should surely want them to come to know that too. There is nothing disrespectful or unkind about people pleading with us to understand what they believe is true, especially when the stakes are so high and the consequences of getting it wrong are potentially so serious.

Which is why, coming back to where we started, I wish Giles would be a little less contemptuous towards Conservative Evangelicals. Incidentally, I don’t know any Conservative Evangelicals who quite say ‘we might be going to hell for being gay’, but nuance doesn’t make for a good sneery point. Even if we can find examples of people who do think and say exactly that, even if you think they are definitely wrong, can we not give them the benefit of recognising that they believe it to be true and are hoping, in telling somebody this, they might be saved from Hell?

More to the point, Giles seems happy to give such leeway to Muslims. He obviously disagrees with them over a lot more still but, I note, those same Muslims still believe homosexuality will be punished in the hellfire, a point he gladly overlooks. Apparently liberals can take pot shots at Conservative Evangelicals, but not Conservative Muslims. Might he, and liberals more broadly, extend the same grace toward their Conservative Evangelical brethren as they do to Muslims? Or, is it the case that his certainty on this point, and his claim that Conservatives ‘already think they’re right anyway’, evidence that he has something of an unbending view of his own rightness? Is there not an inconsistency that he will disagree with the Conservative Muslim congenially, but only sneers in contempt at the Conservative Evangelical?

The fact is, we all believe we are right. That is entirely the point of the discussion. If none of us really believe we’re right, why would we bother going into a group to persuade anyone of anything? If we just want to learn from one another, and emphasise what we have in common, that of itself is a position we are taking that we believe is the right thing to do. Unless and until we all accept it is so, that we all hold to what we think is true and it is not the same, interfaith dialogue is doomed to the tedium of vaguery and obfuscation. But nobody wants angry conflict either. I agree with Giles on that. But it is possible to have robust conversation and remain friendly; it is something we do locally every month. But if we go in with the kind of sneery attitude exhibited in Giles’ article – the patronising self-righteousness of the liberal ‘just here to learn’ whilst evidently feeling superior to all – we will be no better off than had we embarked on a loud religious slanging match.

For what it is worth, I have been in interfaith forums with liberal Christians, Catholics and Muslims and I have been in ones limited to my church and one other Muslim group. It simply isn’t true that we have to agree to remain cordial or that robust disagreement leads to fallings out. In fact, it is only from the honesty of disagreement that helpful discussions play out. When we both admit that we would love the others to convert to our religion, we can have a much more fruitful discussion around the question of why. What is it that makes your religion better than mine, in your view? Honesty makes the discussions valuable. And food afterwards, breaking bread together, goes a long way to covering over a multitude of hard questions and direct answers. If e can disagree strongly, yet still eat and chat around the same table together afterwards, it strikes me we are somewhere close to doing interfaith dialogue helpfully.